Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd
How in the name of Cecil B. DeMille is it possible to make an engaging two-and-a-half-hour film about a bureaucrat who carries a briefcase instead of a gun? A film in which the principal bad guy is ultimately the bureaucrat’s employer (a.k.a. The United States of America)? One which seems dreary throughout, in which the sex is less than inspiring and the sins of the father seem destined to be visited upon the son in any possible sequel?
Ask second-time director Robert De Niro.
In recent promotional interviews for The Good Shepherd on both Larry King Live and The Charlie Rose Show, the director/actor discussed the frustrations of walking around for eight years with hot material about the history of the CIA which he felt somehow unable to consolidate into a workable screenplay. De Niro’s only previous work as a director had been A Bronx Tale, a delightful film to be sure, but one in which the narrative was limited to the life of a boy over a couple of years in a few neighborhood blocks. Taking on institutional history which has traditionally been presented to us as either scripture on the one hand, or disinformation on the other, and then integrating that history with the moving personal stories of flesh-and-blood characters would mean quite a leap for De Niro.
Enter Eric Roth.
As luck would have it, the veteran screenwriter (Munich, Ali, The Insider, Forrest Gump), had himself been developing a script about the very same subject. In a sage move for collaborative support, De Niro yielded his own project to Roth’s as the basis for this entertaining, if troubling, film.
Roth’s screenwriting savvy shines very early on in The Good Shepherd in a scene with which he provides lead character Edward Wilson, portrayed by Matt Damon, a destiny choice worthy of a special article in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly.
In a flashback to his undergraduate years in 1939, during a trying pledge ceremony at Yale’s secret society “Skull and Bones,” the story depicts an upper class “bonesman” of Wilson’s urinating on him from a balcony. Wilson’s immediate reaction is to bolt and run, but yet another bonesman chases him down, and prevails on him to go back and complete his elitist, nonetheless degrading, induction. Here then is the film narrative’s most crucial plot point; for Wilson’s willingness to endure the humiliation sets the stage for his becoming the loyal (yet defeatist) and compromising (yet persistent) CIA good soldier. Once he chooses (at least figuratively) not to come in from the rain, the abandonment of the love of his life as well as all of his subsequent compromises become duck soup for him throughout his long, depressingly loyal years of servitude in the government mill.
Matt Damon is a fine casting choice for Wilson. In The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Damon proved that he could trade his instinctive egotism for self effacement and his natural good looks for ordinariness in the interest of creating a mousey and deceptive character. In the current film, he obviously relies on these same gifts to deliver a worn and tired CIA operative; and his ability to age over twenty-years on screen proves really quite remarkable.
Angelina Jolie turns in a commanding performance as Matt Damon’s wife, Margaret, but the current buzz about her new-found ability to portray a woman different from her actual self seems something of an exaggeration on the evidence of this film. While she’s certainly believable as a miserable, suppressed government wife of the 40s and 50s, Jolie’s power here seems to stem from the same brooding and libidinal energies which she prepared for in the anemic films Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Original Sin.
William Hurt and Michael Gambon have brief but poignant roles as operatives and mentors to Wilson -- Gambon as a Yale Literature professor doubling as a German spy just before World War II, and Hurt as an American career agent whose disenchantment with his low government pay and sardonic take on the entire system provide a stimulating contrast to Wilson’s loyalty at all costs.
Robert De Niro assigns himself the modest yet pivotal role of General Bill Sullivan who, right after his graduation from Yale, recruits Wilson for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and then later for its institutional successor, The Central Intelligence Agency. De Niro’s interpretation of the character (loosely modeled after the historical Wild Bill Donovan who, at the behest of President Roosevelt, actually started the OSS) is one of an aging diabetic who, in keeping with the overall mood of the picture, reconciles himself to his own personal decline yet steels himself for a bright, victorious future for America.
To have kept The Good Shepherd from becoming a cynical film -- as opposed to a virtual PR release for the CIA -- had to have been a delicate mid-course to follow for De Niro and screenwriter Roth. Twenty-first century audiences are accustomed to confessions, exposés, and hard-nose reporting, not to mention fallout from The Freedom of Information Act. How, after all, can we manage to muster sympathy for characters who treat family, friends and colleagues as pawns?
To that end, and thanks in large part to the magnificent cinematography of Robert Richardson, the present film relies on its pervasive powers of nostalgia and its exquisite use of detail in the depiction of an America that is lost to us -- or perhaps more accurately, an America that exists only in our collective imagination. What better way for us to celebrate our victories and forget our sins than to go to the movies and immerse ourselves in an era when men still wore hats and couples still slow-danced to a Cole Porter tune?